Help me! Help!
I’m being crushed.
When I try to breathe, all that comes in is dirt and I end up coughing it straight back out. My eyes are on fire—which is weird, because they’re flooded with tears, too—and my throat feels like somebody’s shoving a scrub brush down it.
I’m going to die.
Great Selene, I’m going to die crushed and choking on dirt.
I have my sister, my parents.
My dog Brewster. If I don’t get home, who’s going to feed him? What if nobody realizes I’m dead until it’s too late, and he starves to death, alone and forgotten. What’ll he think? That I abandoned him?
I’ve gotta get outta here.
I flex my arms, but there’s nowhere for them to flex. I claw my fingers, and thick, dry dirt squeezes through them, but … I can’t move. The weight on me, I’m immobilized.
Ah! Ow! Damn. More weight just fell on me. Please, stop. This is already too much.
No, wait. Something’s moving above me.
The weight, I think it’s getting less … I think … or maybe I’m losing consciousness.
I was dreaming. The worst dream I’ve ever had. I’d been in DC, and somehow I’d been trapped underground when an earthquake hit and I’d been buried under a ton of dirt.
“C’mon, Lori, wake up.”
I open my mouth and… what’s that taste? It’s like a mud pie, but dry and gritty and… my body shudders. I’ve got something in my throat, and when I breathe in--blehgh.
“Roll her over, quick.”
I’m on my belly. Or not quite. Somebody has their hands around my waist, keeping me from lying flat.
I convulse and vomit. It hurts! Oh Selene, it hurts! And not the normal way vomiting hurts. Oh no, this is far worse. Like somebody’s ripping my insides out.
“She needs water.”
I keep vomiting and coughing, and it won’t stop. I try to fight it. I need a chance to breathe, but my body doesn’t want anything getting into me.
I go on like this forever and I want to die. I don’t care. If it’ll make this stop, I don’t care. Let me die. Let this end.
At last I’m able to breathe. When I do, the air comes in a rough, jittering stream, like a car AC that’s on the verge of dying. The back of my mouth tastes hot and vile, and my throat burns.
But I can breathe.
Thank the Goddess, I can breathe!
I try looking around, but my neck twinges at the slightest movement. I have to twist my waist around—that still hurts, but it’s a dull, manageable soreness.
I’m in the dark. The only light is coming from a phone in the hand of a dark and shadowy figure.
“You okay?” His voice is familiar. My boss at the gift shop. I grope for his name. I should know it. We’ve been working together three, four days a week for two years, but all that’s coming up is ████.
“No,” I croak. “What happened?”
“I dunno, an earthquake or something.”
I vaguely remember that. Everything had started shaking and then—the others? Where are the others? Where’re … where’re … their names aren’t coming to me either. ██████ and ████ and █████████. I can see their faces in my head, but why can’t I think of their names?
“I found another one,” a woman says. It’s … it’s … oh Goddess, what is her name? My co-worker, she’d been in the gift shop earlier. “Gimme a hand.”
“Here.” ████ hands me his phone, then he gets on the ground with the girl.
There’s another phone lying on the ground, its flashlight on but shining at the ceiling where it doesn’t do much good.
I hold ████’s phone up to shine the light on him and the woman. Yes, that’s definitely her, my coworker. She’s facing away from me, but the way she’s crouching reveals the tattoo on her lower back, a Native American Thunderbird with its wings stretched out over her buttocks.
There’s another person next to her—██████! The cutie from my group. He’s alive.
The tunnel in front of them is filled with dirt that’s fallen in from the ceiling. Is that what I’d been under? No wonder I feel like a piano fell on me.
“C’mon, pull.” My coworker’s gotten a figure half uncovered, and now she and my boss are pulling him out. It’s that science guy—my mind’s blanking on his name, too, though I do remember that a lot of people called him by his initials … BLT? LGBT? No, those aren’t right.
“He’s not breathing,” Coworker says. “Brad, can you CPR him?”
Brad! Brad! That’s my boss’s name. How could I not remember something so simple?
“Yeah. I’ll try,” he says.
They’ve got the science guy loose now, and they drag him down the tunnel a ways. I have to step out of the way to let them pass.
“You get back to digging,” Brad tells Coworker and Cutie. “Lor, get the light up so I can see.”
I hold his phone as high as I can get it. Brad presses his fingers to the science guy’s throat for what seems like an awfully long time.
“Nope,” he mutters, and repositions himself. He presses his hands onto the guy’s chest and pumps them up and down. I’ve only ever seen CPR in movies, and the way Brad’s doing it is nothing like that. In the movies, mouth-to-mouth is the main part, with the actors spending whole minutes blowing into the victim’s throat, then getting up to do a couple pumps. But Brad, he keeps pumping on the guy for close to a minute before going down for the mouth-to-mouth part, which he only does a couple times before restarting the chest compressions.
He switches back and forth three, four times, but Mr. Science doesn’t—no wait! His eyes just twitched. Or maybe I was seeing things. It’s so dark in here, and if my arm moves in the slightest, it makes a hundred shadows dance. But no, Mr. Science is moving. His eyelids flip open for a moment, then snap shut against the light of the phone. I bring my arm down and angle the light towards the ceiling.
Brad leans back. He’s slick with sweat and panting for breath. He wipes his face on his shirt, though all that does is smear the sweaty grime around.
The science guy rolls onto his side and hacks for air, but he manages not to vomit. After a few moments he pushes himself into a sitting position. “Where’m I?”
“You don’t remember?” Brad says.
“I was … on an airplane. Going to DC? What happened, we crash?”
“No, you got to DC.”
“I don’t—wait, yeah. The premiere. I remember that. And a party afterwards? I had a couple drinks but … not enough to blackout. Did I?”
“No. Not that kinda blackout at least.”
“Ah, Christ,” Coworker says from down the tunnel.
“Something wrong?” Brad calls.
“We found another one,” she says.
“They need CPR?” Brad says.
“That’s not gonna do her any good.”
Me and Brad head back towards the dig, leaving Mr. Science to himself. As we approach, my light flashes across an arm sticking out of the dirt—a woman’s arm. I recognize the rings on her fingers, but her name—████—is as much a blank as everyone’s. She hadn’t quite been our leader—we’re anarchists, after all—but she’d always kept us organized. She collected phone numbers and email addresses, made sure people knew when our meetings would be. She referred to herself as our facilitatrix.
But she’s not that anymore.
She’s not anything.
Coworker’s only been able to get the left side of her body exhumed so far—her arm, her shoulder, and … her head.
It’s not pretty. A piece of concrete must’ve hit her, cuz her forehead’s dented like a soda can that somebody’s pressed their thumb against too hard. The side of her face is black with blood that’s mixed with dirt. Her eyes are still open, and when my light passes over her face, her pupils remain glassy and wide.
We keep digging, taking turns at it, everyone except … except … dammit, I’ve forgotten his name again. My boss. ████. Since he’s the only one here who knows CPR, we tell him to sit to the side when he isn’t needed.
He hasn’t been needed so far.
The mound of dirt we’re dealing with is huge, and we’re barely making a dent in it. In the last half hour we’ve found one more body, a museum bigwig, but like ████ he was as dead as dead gets—a piece of rebar had gone through his chest; there was no way for Boss to perform CPR on him.
At this rate we’re not going to get anyone else out alive. Anyone who’s under there has probably suffocated by now, and even if there’s an air pocket somewhere, it won’t last long enough for us to get to it.
Maybe if we had help—a team of diggers, paramedics with medical gear—we might have a chance, but when Mr. Science suggested we go and find some, Coworker had said it wouldn’t do any good.
“After you guys left, the cops showed up and made me open the backroom. I let them back there and went back to the counter. I rang up one customer, and then the store was empty. Then, about five minutes later, the fire alarm starts blaring. Freaked me out at first, and I was about ready to run out the store, but then it occurred to me that maybe the cops had decided to go back to the loading bay. Sure enough.
“I followed them back and tried to yell at them—‘You’re gonna be in so much trouble for this, you just caused a major museum to be evacuated’—but they ignored me. Like my one chance to get legitimately angry at a cop and they blow me off.
“Anyways, they noticed the stairwell door was ajar and headed over that way. I told them it was off-limits to anyone but museum personnel, but again with the ignoring.
“The alarm was still going off, so I figured there was no harm in leaving the store unattended. I followed them down. I dunno why, honestly. Seemed a thing to do, y’know.
“We’d barely reached the bottom of the stairs when everything began shaking. We heard something crash down in the tunnel and the lights went out. I’m like, ‘Shit, gotta get outta here,’ but, y’know, no lights, can’t exactly go anywhere.
“Once the rumbling stopped, the cops pulled their flashlights out and ran back up the stairs—one of them damn near pushed me over the stair rail, asshole. I didn’t know what to do—should I go look for you guys in the tunnel (I figured that’s where you were) or get the hell out. I decided to get the hell out—sorry, but yeah.
“When I got to the top of the steps, the cops were already gone, and the emergency exit—the one for the outside—was wide open. I was going to jump out, but when I got to the door … I dunno what happened, but it sure as hell wasn’t a quake. Looks like a fire swept over the Mall, and when I tried my cell, couldn’t get a signal.”
Part of me wants to go up and see for myself, but I know we can’t. Not while there’s a possibility that people—my friends even if I can’t remember their names—are still alive under this dirt. We have to keep going as long as we can.
I dig my hand into the pile. I have to be careful. There’s rebar and chunks of concrete mixed in with the soil, so if I scoop the dirt away too fast, I risk mangling my fingers. I work at a steady pace, but in the ten minutes I’ve been doing this, I haven’t cleared enough dirt to move forward even an inch. Maybe if we had shovels, we could improve our pace—but even then we’d have to be careful not to injure anyone who’s trapped down here.
Mr. Science is next to me, taking his turn at the digging. For an old guy, he’s managing pretty well, and his bigger hands allow him to clear more dirt than me, but even so, he’s barely made a scratch in--
Whoa, what just happened? Everything’s black all of a sudden. I can’t even see my hands.
“Ah crap,” Boss says.
“What is it?” Coworker says.
“My cell’s down to twenty percent battery, went into power saving mode. Damn, I had a full charge this morning.”
“Did you put it in airplane mode?” Cutie says.
“That explains it. If there’s no signal, it’s going to burn through the battery trying to get one. Add in the flashlight, yeah, that’ll do it.”
Coworker has her phone out. “I didn’t charge mine last night. It’s at thirty-five percent.”
“That’s not good,” Mr. Science says. “I don’t know about you folk, but I’m not keen on getting stuck down here in the dark.”
“No,” Cutie says.
“Don’t we have a flashlight in the store?” Coworker says.
“Do we?” Boss says. He fiddles with his phone. After a couple seconds, the light comes back on.
“Yeah,” I say. “In the drawer with the stapler and tape and all that stuff.”
“I’ll run up and get it,” Coworker says.
“Grab some spare batteries, too,” Boss says.
“What, just off the shelf?”
“If the surface is like you say, who’s going to care?”
“If you’re going up,” Mr. Science says, “think you can scrounge up some food? I dunno about you guys, but I haven’t eaten since eleven this morning. I am starving.”
“I could go with some eats,” Boss agrees.
“Yeah.” All I’ve eaten today was some avocado toast this morning and the nacho’s I’d appropriated from the taco truck. “Something vegetarian.”
“Well yeah,” Coworker says in a tone that suggests I’m an idiot. “I ain’t cooking anything—if the gas is even working—and any meat that’s been left out is gonna be cold by now. I’ll see what I can find, but it’s probably gonna be cold fries and candy bars.”
“I can live on that for now,” Boss says.
“Why don’t I go with you,” Cutie says, “give ya a hand.”
“Sure,” Coworker says.
They disappear down the tunnel.
“So how long you want us to keep digging?” Mr. Science says. He scoops his hand into the dirt and tosses it aside.
“As long as it takes,” Boss says.
“If we haven’t found them by now, there’s not much hope,” Mr. Science says.
“People have survived under rubble for days.”
“Rubble, yes, but this isn’t rubble. Rubble has air pockets for people to breathe in. As far as I’ve seen, this is solid dirt. Unless they’re megadriles, nobody can breathe under this.”
“That may be so, but we can’t give up. Not this quickly.” Boss checks his watch. “It’s not quite five-thirty yet. Why don’t we keep this up until seven? We’ll have an hour of daylight left. We can check things out on the surface and figure out what to do. I’ve got a van, plenty of room for everybody. If the streets are in good condition, we can drive outta here.”
“Drive where?” Mr. Science says. “If things are like the girl says, we have to face the prospect that there’s been a nuclear war. Is there anywhere to get to?”
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “There hasn’t been a nuclear war.”
“What?” Boss and Mr. Science say in unison.
“Why would there be?”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Boss says. “Weren’t you protesting this?”
“We were protesting the corrupt, fascist regime.”
“Which was going to start a war with North Korea,” Boss says.
“A war, sure, but the kind with tanks and planes. The capitalist interests would never let the President go nuclear—too much risk to their precious assets.”
“I … don’t think that’s how it works,” Boss says.
“No,” Mr. Science says.
Of course they don’t. Boss, just like Coworker, comes from a comfortable bourgeois background, and Mr. Science is part of the Hollywood-Military complex—he’s always on TV hyping NASA, when anyone who does the least bit of research knows that 90% of NASA’s work is military in purpose. The Space Shuttle was designed specifically to carry military satellites into orbit—the Hubble Space Telescope is a spy satellite with the lenses flipped around so the public thinks NASA does actual science.
Boss and Coworker and Mr. Science are sheeple. They support the system. They don’t think it’s wrong. They think the President is a deviation from what’s good and proper rather than the logical end point of Republicrat government. I’m kinda thankful the guy got elected. Yeah, he’s evil, but only marginally worse than his opponents. People are only upset because he says the quiet parts loud.
“That’s naiveté talking,” I say. “That’s—” I break off suddenly. My hand’s plunged into the dirt, and it’s found something soft and fleshy—and, more importantly, warm. And there—a muscle just flexed beneath my touch. “I found someone! Get the light up.”
I clear away the dirt as fast as I can, revealing a dark elbow—naturally dark, not just because it’s covered in dirt. █████████! I can’t remember her name, but I know it’s something suave and sophisticated, and she insists that we pronounce it with a French style, but everyone shortens it to something simpler—something like Mike or Rob or—I know it’s a man’s name like that, but it won’t come to me. Damn. I can see her face in my mind. Why can’t I come up with her name?
Mr. Science joins me, and we’ve soon discovered which way her arm’s going. We ignore the lower part and dig towards her shoulder, towards her head. But then we encounter an obstacle, a huge chunk of concrete that fell out of the ceiling. It’s slanting diagonally—there must be an air pocket underneath. That’s how she’s alive.
But this means we have to be careful. If the concrete slab comes loose, it’s gonna crush her. We have to slow the pace of our digging. We excavate around the side of the concrete, digging down to get at the underside, open up some air to Frenchy. If we can do that, we can relax a bit.
There—there’s a tiny, dark gap open between the concrete and dirt.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
“Lori? Thank God. I thought I was gonna die in here. Yeah, I’m a little busted up, but just cuts and bruises. Nothing feels broken. But Leslie’s in here too, and they haven’t moved since the quake.”
“Okay, we’re going to dig you out,” Mr. Science says, then he looks to me. “As long as we stay towards the middle of the slab, it should be stable. I think we can make a gap that’s big enough to pull them out.”
We get to work, moving as fast as we dare, but there are chunks of concrete mixed in with the dirt, and when we come across them we have to dig them out and toss them aside. Though some of them are too big to toss. We find one that has two pieces of rebar sticking out of it, and even with both of us lifting it, we’re barely able to move it. We carry it far enough it’ll be out of our way, and then set it down.
“I thought rebar was supposed to make concrete stronger.” I’m panting and sweating even worse than when I’d been running around in the heat outside. I sure hope Coworker and Cutie get back soon with some bottles of water, or else I’m gonna shrivel into a husk.
“It is,” Mr. Science says, “but this tunnel is over a century old, and metal fatigues over time. If I had to guess, we’re under a street here. A hundred years of cars and trucks driving over it probably stressed the metal to the point it couldn’t withstand a major earthquake.”
“Guess we’re lucky there haven’t been any aftershocks,” I say.
“Knock on wood,” Boss says and taps his head with his fist.
“That’s a superstition,” Mr. Science says. “There’s no reason to believe knocking on wood could affect the outcome of events.”
“Oh. I never realized that.”
“We hear all kinds of things as children that we integrate into our worldview. It’s important to evaluate those ideas, so they don’t distort our understanding of reality.”
“Right,” Boss says.
“What the hell’s taking them so long?”
Boss gives voice to what I’m thinking. Coworker and Cutie have been gone for—well, I don’t know exactly, I don’t have a watch on, but long enough that my hand is seriously sore from all this digging. I need a break.
How long does it take them to find food? The flashlight should’ve been simple—they could’ve gotten that and been back in five minutes, I’m sure—so the food must be what’s taking them. But the food court is right there in the lobby—just grab some bags of chips and some bottles of water and soda, maybe some candy bars. Nothing fancy.
“Something wrong?” Frenchy’s voice has an echoey effect to it, like she’s talking through a toy megaphone.
“No, nothing important,” I say. We haven’t told her what Coworker saw on the surface. No sense in freaking her out yet. Let’s get her free first.
At least that’s what common sense says, but Mr. Science butts in. “We sent some people up to get food and extra flashlights, they aren’t back yet.”
“Food and flashlights? Why aren’t they calling for help? Hell, as long as I’ve been under here, shouldn’t we have firefighters up in here by now?”
Mr. Science opens his mouth, but I don’t let him get a word out.
“There seems to be some trouble up above, too,” I say.
“What kind of trouble?”
“We don’t know yet. We’ve been busy down here. You think you can get out yet?”
We’ve cleared a gap about two feet high and wide. Frenchy’s skinny enough, she should have no problem getting through there.
“Yeah. But what about Leslie?”
“Let’s get you out first,” Boss says, “then we’ll worry about … her?”
“Them,” I say.
“Leslie’s a gender nonconformist. They prefer to be addressed with they/them/their.”
“Ah … okay? We can do that.”
“I’ve always felt that third-person singular creates unnecessary ambiguity. I much prefer ve/vim/ver from Greg Egan’s—”
“Yeah, well Leslie likes ‘they’. Could you guys move, yer in my way?” While we were talking, Frenchy’s crawled through the hole up to her waist.
“Here.” I offer her my hand and haul her out. She’s covered in dirt from head to toe, and her hair, which she normally keeps in a cute puff, has frizzed out like a mad scientist’s.
She stumbles over the mound of dirt and has to steady herself against the wall. She grimaces and bends over to rub her calf.
“You okay?” Boss asks.
“Cramp. When I was under there, my leg was bent funny and now it’s …” She inhales sharply. “Ohhhh.”
“Do you need a muscle massage?” Mr. Science asks.
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “It’ll be gone in a minute.”
I kneel next to the hole and peer inside, but all I can see is blackness. “I need the light.”
Boss comes over to me and holds his phone up.
“I’m down to twelve percent battery.”
“The others should be back soon.”
“I sure hope so. But while you guys have been digging, I’ve been stuck with nothing to do but think.”
“Crazy stuff. Like, if what Amy said is true, something pretty bad must’ve happened upstairs. What if … I dunno. What if something happened to them?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know what I mean, and that has me terrified. Who knows what’s going on.”
While we’ve been talking, I’ve been examining the inside of the hole. There’s a wedge-shaped chamber beneath the slab, maybe five feet by six across, and three feet at its tallest. Leslie—I’ve gotta remember that name—is on the farthest side from me, curled up and facing away. They don’t look injured, but if the slab had conked them on the head as it fell, they could have a concussion and we couldn’t tell.
“You’re the smallest one here,” Boss says. “If me or LLGB try to get in there, we’re gonna have to enlarge the opening first.”
We’re gonna have to enlarge the opening one way or another to get Leslie out, but if I go in, Boss and the others can work on it while I’m moving Leslie. Les is big—maybe eighty or ninety pounds heavier than me—but I can manage.
I grab the side of the opening and pull myself in. It’s awkward to do, and once I get my upper half inside, I have to walk on my hands until I get my waist through. But at last I’m inside.
The concrete slab had served as an umbrella against the dirt, leaving the floor mostly clean, though a bit has spilled in from the sides, some of it onto Leslie.
I start by dusting them off, then try to rouse them. They don’t respond.
Should I turn them onto their back? I know you aren’t supposed to move somebody who might be concussed or have a spinal injury, but that assumes there are paramedics on the way who can do things properly. We don’t have that luxury.
I grab their shoulder and pull them over. They’re breathing, steady and deep. That’s good, right?
“Leslie. Hey. Come on, wake up.” I poke them and lightly slap their face, like people do in movies, but to no avail. Guess I’ll have to do this the hard way.
There’s not enough room to stand up in here, so that constrains my options. I try to drag Leslie away from the wall, but I can barely budge them the way I’m crouched. I flip myself onto my backside, and that works a little better. I lift them up and wrap my arms under their shoulders, then pull them towards me. They slide across the ground an inch at a time.
After a few tugs, I have Leslie sitting up against me. I scoot out of the way and leave them propped against the wall, then turn around.
Boss and Mr. Science have widened the hole a little, but not nearly enough for Leslie to get through even if they were able to move on their own.
“Get back,” I say.
The guys do as I tell them and I lift my legs up. One good kick explodes the top of the dirt pile. I try again a little lower, but this time my heel hits against a piece of rubble. A jolt goes up my leg. That’s not gonna work, so I try applying a steady pressure against the block of concrete, shifting it out of the pile.
Thup. Thup. Bop.
The block tumbles loose.
I make a couple more kicks, and at last the hole is wide enough that we can move … move … ah dammit, their name’s gone. It was right there a moment ago. ██████. Shit. Is there something wrong with my brain? Is that it? Is this going to be permanent?
I think about my parents, my sister… but no names are coming. My best friend from high school, my first boyfriend, my college roommate—all blank.
I dig through my brain. There has to be a name in there somewhere. The President and First Lady… the Speaker of the House… who I voted for in the last election… the host of The Young Turks… the princess from Star Wars… nothing’s coming.
Then I remember when I was really little, like three or four, watching TV in the mornings. Sesame Street and Square One Television and … Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood! Mr. Rogers! Yes. Never have I been so grateful to an avatar of white patriarchy!
Other names come now. I Love Lucy, and ALF and Ally McBeal. It’s like I can remember names when they’re in a title, but not when I try to associate them directly with people.
“Yo, Lor. Earth to Lori.”
“I’ve only got eight percent,” Boss says.
Oh, I was spacing out there. Can’t do that. We’re in an emergency.
“Yeah. Okay. I think we can get ‘em through now.”
I push Leslie to their side so that they’re lying against the mouth of the hole. Boss and Mr. Science reach through and grab them by the shoulders.
“Try and lift her waist,” Boss says, “that way she isn’t scraping her back when we pull her out.”
“They,” I say.
I get my arms under ██████ and lift ‘em up as much as I can while Boss and Mr. Science haul ‘em through the opening. They’re too heavy to make a go of it all at once, so we go in fits and spurts, moving ‘em a couple inches at a time. We’ve got ‘em out to their waist when--
“Uh, we got a problem here,” Mr. Science says.
“Wha—oh, shit,” Boss says. “That’s not good, is it?”
“Very not good.”
“Mind filling me in?”
“We’ve got water leaking through the ceiling,” Boss says.
“… okay?” Not seeing how that’s a huge problem. Annoying, sure, but— “So?”
But he doesn’t answer. Neither does Mr. Science. Instead they grab ██████ and haul ‘em through the hole without waiting for me to help.
“Come on,” Boss says as soon as ██████’s shoes disappear over the lip of the hole. “We gotta get outta here.”
What? But the look on his face tells me this is no time to be asking questions. I pull myself through the opening. As I’m coming out, a trickle of icy water falls onto the small of my back—I let out a yip of surprise and whang my knee against a chunk of concrete. I nearly faceplant, but Boss grabs me and pulls me up.
Mr. Science is already dragging ██████ backwards, and Frenchy pitches in to give him a hand.
“What’s the matter?” I say, still not sure why they’re panicking.
Boss jerks his head towards the ceiling rather than answering.
I turn and look up. There’s a steady stream of water leaking out from the top of the dirt pile, about as much as my bathtub faucet on full blast. But that’s not the real problem. Boss flashes his phone across the top of the tunnel. When the roof had collapsed, a ton of dirt had fallen in here, but there are many more tons still above us. The dirt up there is turning a darker brown as water builds up behind it. In places it’s so saturated that it’s turning into runny mud and flowing on its own.
A water main must’ve busted. Somewhere up there, a pipe must be spewing water into the soil and slowly eating it away. We’re looking at a sink hole from the underside, and it’s only a matter of time—hours? Minutes?—until it collapses. We still have a partial ceiling over us, so the whole tunnel shouldn’t fill up, but that semi-liquid mud will flow in here like lava. If there’s anyone else alive under that mound, there’s no way we can dig them out now.
“I’m at six percent,” Boss says. “We need to move it, like now.”
I turn and head down the tunnel. We pass the bodies on the floor, poor ████ and the museum bigwig. Will the incoming mud cover them up again, or are they going to be left like this? I know it doesn’t matter, not really, but I’d rather they get covered up. Maybe that’s my parents’ Christianity poking through, but burial seems more natural.
The loading dock is deserted when we get up there, but the door into the store is propped open with a trashcan. Other than that, there’s no sign of Coworker and Cutie.
“Whoa. Amy was not kidding.” Boss is over at the emergency exit, looking outside. I go over to join him. There’s no wind outside, not even the slightest stir of a breeze, but after the stuffy, stale air of the tunnel, even the humid soup outside is a relief.
We don’t have much a view from the doorway—the parking lot outside is sunken beneath the level of the main entrance, so mainly all we can see is a retaining wall around the edge of the lot, though there are a few bushes and trees visible over the top. They’re burnt bare, every one of them. My heart skips at the sight of the ruin. It’s one thing for people to die, but such beautiful plants… that’s a far deeper tragedy. Oh Gaia. I don’t know what humanity’s done to you now, but I’m so sorry.
To our right there’s a break in the wall where a staircase leads up street-level, and through the gap I can see the Smithsonian Castle. The main structure is still standing, but several of the towers have broken off.
“Check it out.” Boss points to the left. At first I can’t tell what he wants me to see, but then, through the blackened branches of trees, I catch sight of the Capitol. Or what’s left of it. The dome’s cracked clear through.
“What the hell happened?” Mr. Science says.
“I got no idea,” Boss says. “But this doesn’t look good, that’s for sure.”
“They went and did it, didn’t they?” Frenchy says. “They blew it up.”
“I don’t know about that,” Mr. Science says. “This is bad, but a nuclear bomb would be worse. Maybe… I dunno, a gamma-ray burst?”
“What kinda bomb is that?” Frenchy says.
“Not a bomb. It’s a stellar phenomenon. We aren’t sure what causes them—we mainly observe them in distant galaxies, too far away to see in detail—but one theory is they’re caused by colliding stars. If one were to occur within a few thousand lightyears of Earth, and if the gamma-ray emission were aimed in our direction, it would be extremely bad.”
“Yeah, I saw that Discovery Channel special,” Boss says.
“There you guys are. I was just coming to look for you.”
We turn and see … see … ah damn, I had her name for a second, but it slipped away. Something with an “A”—Amanda? Allison? Alicia? No, not quite, but I think Amanda is close. So close. My brain aches as I try to remember Coworker’s name.
She’s standing at the door to the store. Cutie’s not with her, and she doesn’t have any of the supplies we wanted other than a flashlight.
“Where the hell were you?” Boss says.
“Sorry, we got a little sidetracked. You guys better come see this.”
“See what?” Mr. Science asks.
“It’s … really something you gotta see for yourselves. I don’t even have the words.”
“What about Leslie?” Frenchy asks.
They’re still unconscious. We had to carry them out of the tunnel, but I don’t know that it’s a smart idea to keep hauling them around in this state.
Boss is thinking the same thing. “Somebody should stay with her—them. Sorry. You wanna do it?” he asks Frenchy.
She shrugs. “Yeah. I can. Gimme a chance to sit down, wrap my head around—that.” She points vaguely towards the parking lot.
“We’ve got chairs in the break room, you wanna grab one,” Coworker says.
“That’d be nice, yeah.”
While she goes to grab one of the plastic chairs, the rest of us head into the store.
Nothing’s changed since we were in here earlier, except the lights are all off. That’s one giant exception, though. Even when we close up at night, there are always a few lights that remain on so whoever opens in the morning isn’t bumping into things when they get here. Right now the place is pitch black except for Coworker’s flashlight and a bit of sun filtering in from the lobby. Makes the place creepy, like something out of a zombie movie.
“Remember I said how after I let the cops into the backroom, I came back here and rang up a customer?” Coworker says.
“Not really,” Boss says.
I vaguely recall that. It was hardly the most noteworthy part of her story, and we were preoccupied with digging people out at the time.
“Okay, so the guy I checked out, he bought a bunch of puzzles—the big, thousand, two thousand piece kind.”
“O~kay?” Boss says.
I’m not seeing the relevance here, either.
Coworker leads us out of the store. “Well, check this out.” She points her flashlight down the lobby, though there’s enough light coming in from the entrance that the beam gets washed out. Still, we get what she’s pointing at. In the middle of the floor, there’s a pile of shoes and clothing with a plastic bag next to it. And a puddle of … something.
“What is that?” Mr. Science says.
“Take a look in the bag,” Coworker says.
I don’t particularly want to go over there. Something about the puddle is … I don’t wanna get near it.
Boss, though, he goes. Mr. Science too. They approach cautiously, like there might be a cobra hidden in the clothes. Boss toes the bag open.
“…” he says.
“What is it?” I ask. I think I know, but I’d rather somebody put it into words.
“There are four boxes of puzzles in here.”
“That’s…?” I say.
“Yeah,” Coworker says. “I knew it was him right away, even before I peeked in the bag. I recognized his shirt.”
“What could do this?” Boss says.
“That’s a very astute question,” Mr. Science says. “I suppose, maybe, a gamma-ray burst might, but… I don’t know.”
“There’s more,” Coworker says. “We checked out the food court and found a couple more of these puddles. And… it’s not just people. The hamburgers are melted the same way, and the veggies on them are crisped like the trees outside. Only thing intact are the buns.”
“Hell,” Boss says.
“Okay, hypothesis,” Mr. Science says, “whatever happened affected cells—and it did so regardless of whether they were alive or dead. Animal cells simply burst, whereas plant cells burned—probably because of cellulose, though I don’t understand how. But we were protected because we were underground at the time—the soil over our heads must’ve had a canceling effect on the phenomenon.”
“Dirt canceled it, but stone and concrete didn’t?” Boss says.
“I don’t claim to understand. I’m merely stating my observations.”
“Fair enough, I suppose.” Boss looks to Coworker. “Now what happened with the guy you came up here with?”
“After we saw this, we decided to do a little more exploring,” Coworker says. “Went upstairs to look around. It’s more of the same. The main lobby is a real mess—everyone was trying to get out because of the fire alarm when the … whatever happened. The floor up there is virtually covered with this sludge. Once we saw that, Duncan said I should go back and get you guys, he was going to look around further.”
Duncan! I have to remember that name.
Duncan. Like donuts. I’ll think of that when I see him, maybe that’ll help.
“Hey, did you hear that?” Mr. Science says.
“Sounded like a car unlocking,” Coworker says.
Nobody says anything. We simply take off for the entrance all as one.
The glass on the doors has shattered outwards, but the stampede bars prevent us from simply stepping through the door frames. Boss pushes one of the doors, but it only opens partway before it jams on the broken glass outside. He pushes again and it lurches a few inches further. Mr. Science tries a different door, but this one barely moves at all.
“C’mon,” Boss says.
Mr. Science and Coworker join him and shove. Glass grinds against the concrete as the door inches open. At last the gap’s wide enough that Coworker can slip through. She goes around and kicks the glass loose until the door can swing freely.
We pour out into the heat. The inside of the museum had been sweltering, but at least it held the lingering residue of air conditioning. Out here we’re getting the double whammy of being broiled by the humid air while the light of the sun bakes our skin. I have to close my eyes for a moment it’s so bright. When I open them again, Boss is shading his eyes and Mr. Science is putting on a pair of sunglasses.
“I don’t see anyone,” Coworker says. “You guys?”
“No, I—over there!” Boss points towards the street.
There’s a gold SUV pulling away from the curb. The sun glints off its window, leaving a dazzle across my vision. I blink several times, but a smeared afterimage remains.
“Hey! Hey! Wait!” Coworker shouts and runs for the street, but it’s too late. By the time she reaches the sidewalk, the car’s halfway to the Capitol. She chases after it, arms waving, but the driver never sees her.
“Well, we know we’re not the only ones left alive,” Mr. Science says.
“If you’re right that being underground protected us, then anyone who was in the Metro…” Boss says. “What’s the closest station?”
“Federal Triangle and Smithsonian, they’re both about the same distance,” I say.
“We can split up, check them both out,” Mr. Science says.
“Sure, but we need to find…” ██████. I’m blanking on the name again, it hasn’t even been five minutes. But this time I remember it has something to do with donuts. Donuts? Chocolate? Sprinkles? Bavarian cream? Dunkin’? Dunkin’! That’s it. “Find Duncan first, that way he’s not wandering around looking for—”
I stop. I thought—yes. Voices. Coming this way.
“…they run off like that?”
“My sister, who knows.”
Across the dead lawn, there’s a group of five or six people—it’s hard to tell with the sun glaring in my face—coming up the driveway from the employee parking lot. They stop dead when they spot us.
“Hey!” Boss shouts. “Are we glad to see you.”
“Yo,” a guy says.
The group comes towards us. There are indeed six of them—a South Asian woman and three white guys who look to be college age, a Rubenesque woman around my age, and an older South Asian man, though he doesn’t look related to the woman.
“Have you seen a girl?” the South Asian woman says. “Seventeen, dark skinned like me, with her hair in a braid.”
“Sorry, no,” Boss says.
“She was with a cop,” one of the young men says, a generically handsome guy in preppy clothes. “Middle aged guy, red hair, fish-belly white.”
“There were a couple cops around here earlier,” Coworker says, “but they am-scrayed right after the quake.”
“No, this would’ve been in the last few minutes,” the preppy guy says.
My stomach’s sinking. I can tell exactly where this is going. “We haven’t seen them, but when we came out here, we saw a car take off.” I point down Constitution.
“Oh fuck,” the second white guy says. He’s potbellied, with long sideburns and a goatee.
The South Asian woman dashes out to the street.
“Wait! Shreya!” The preppy guy takes off after her.
The rest of her group looks at each other, but nobody follows.
She runs most of the way to the end of the block before the futility of what she’s doing hits her. She stops abruptly and sways on her feet. The preppy guy catches her before she can fall, and she leans against his chest.
“You think the guy actually took Vina?” the Rubenesque woman says.
“Who knows,” the South Asian guy says.
“Wouldn’t surprise me. Cops, man, you can’t trust them,” the guy with sideburns says. “’Specially not in DC.”
The preppy guy comes back with the South Asian girl leaning limply against him.
“Why would he do that?” She sniffles. “Why? And what was she thinking, going with him?”
“He musta lured her out somehow, tricked her,” Preppy Guy says.
“He’s a cop. He’s got a uniform and a badge, and, well, Vina’s not exactly streetwise, you know,” Sideburns says.
“Question is, how do we get her back?” This is the third white guy, who’s been silent thus far. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says something about sarcasm. “He could be anywhere by now, and we’re on foot.”
“I’ve got a van,” Boss says, “and Amy, you drove in today, right?”
“With two vehicles, we can cover—”
“Like that’s gonna help?” Sideburns says. “He could be in Maryland already, halfway to Baltimore, or doubling back to Virginia, or holing up two blocks from here. We’ve got no idea. Where would we even start looki—”
“Nick, shut your mouth,” Preppy Guy says.
The South Asian woman’s started crying harder, and Preppy Guy pulls her tighter against him.
“Sorry,” Sideburns says. (Sideburns—as in he’s afraid of nicking his cheek shaving. Nick. Shaving. Gotta remember that.)
“What’s going on?” The door to the museum grates against glass as Dunkin’ comes out.
Boss gives him the rundown on the situation.
“What color was the SUV?” Dunkin’ asks.
“I know exactly where it is.”
We’re jogging down 12th Street towards the Mall. In the distance there’s a throng of people streaming towards the Potomac. As we get closer and my field of vision expands, I can tell there are a couple thousand of them at least.
“I found a window up on the top floor—” Dunkin’s explaining as we go.
“Wait, there aren’t any windows in the public parts of the museum,” Boss says.
“No,” Dunkin’ says. “I forced a door into the research area. Sue me. The point is, from up there I could see all this—” he gestures at the crowd.
“Okay, but what does that have to do with my sister?” the South Asian woman says.
“Well, as I was watching, I saw this gold SUV come down Independence Avenue. Only vehicle I could see moving about. But as it was about to pass the Washington Monument, it spun out of control and crashed.”
“Oh my God,” (cut himself shaving) Nick says. “Not only a kidnapper, but fucking incompetent.”
“Don’t worry, I saw somebody get outta the SUV—passenger side—and go running towards the crowd. Your sister should be safe.”
“Hey, what’s that down there?” Mr. Science says.
We’ve come around the corner of the National History Museum now and have a view out to the Washington Monument—or what’s left of it. The tower’s broken off a quarter of the way up, and rubble lies on the dead grass. But that’s not what Mr. Science it talking about. There’s a line of motorcycles and black SUVs stopped on the road in front of the Monument, their path blocked by the crowd of people.
“Holy shit, don’t tell me that sonuvabitch lived through this,” (cut himself shaving) Nick says.
A sound like somebody letting off a firecracker echoes across the Mall. The guys on the motorcycles react instantly by dismounting and drawing guns.
“Vina!” the South Asian woman shouts and takes off running towards the Monument.
“No! Wait!” Preppy Guy tries to grab her, but when she slips his grasp he runs after her.
“Aw, shit,” Coworker says. She turns and hightails it back towards the museum.
So does (cut himself shaving) Nick.
“Come on,” Dunkin’ says. He reaches behind his back and pulls up the hem of his shirt. There’s a gun poking out from his waistband. He pulls it loose and flips a switch on the side.
“Where did you get that?” I ask, but he’s already running towards the motorcade.
Boss follows, then Mr. Science and the South Asian man. That leaves me and the Rubenesque woman standing on the street corner.
A second explosion echoes around us.
“We should get outta here,” the Rubenesque woman says.
Yeah, but where? Back to the museum, or--
The men on the motorcycles open fire on the crowd.
To Be Continued...
“You got any ketchup?”
“What do ya need ketchup for?”
“…? My taco?”
“You don’t put ketchup on tacos.”
“Uh, yeah, I do. Hot sauce gives me indigestion.”
“Well too bad, eat it plain. We don’t have ketchup here.”
“No need for the attitude, Paco. Jeez.” The woman turns and stalks away, flipping the bird behind her as she goes.
“You white people are crazy.” Miguel sits back down on his stool. “Ketchup on tacos … that’s as bad as pineapple on pizza.”
“I like pineapple on pizza,” I say.
“That is sick and disgusting and you are going to hell. The only thing that goes on pizza is cheese, sauce and meat.”
“I’m a vegetarian.”
Miguel rolls his eyes. “Then I tell you what I told her—eat it plain. Don’t go ruinin’ it with stuff don’t belong on it.”
“It is a miracle you have any customers,” I reach over to the soda machine and refill my cup. I’ve been guzzling soda all day. I know it’s bad for me and I’ll spend an extra half hour at the gym tomorrow to burn it off, but for right now I need the refreshment. It’s over ninety outside with 100% humidity, and it’s even worse inside the truck thanks to the stove. Even with a fan pointed straight at me, I’ve got sweat pouring off me. My shirt is clinging to me.
“You’re not a customer,” Miguel says.
Fair enough. I’m mooching today. We’ve been here since eight in the morning, and all I’ve done is check social media and eat chips while Miguel cooks the food and rings up customers. Business had been slow at first—people had either eaten before setting out this morning, or they’d stopped at Starbucks on the way here—but it had finally picked up after eleven and been pretty steady through most of the afternoon. Only in the last half-hour had it died down—I guess it’s late enough now that anyone who’s hungry is holding out for a proper meal, not something they bought from a truck on the side of the road.
I look outside. The Mall is still packed. Metro had tweeted that this was their second busiest day on record—bigger than the Women’s March, but still not the level of Obama’s inauguration. Though unlike the Women’s March, this had been an impromptu affair, only organized in the last three days, so you don’t have people pouring into DC on charter buses.
“Excuse me,” a man calls from outside the truck.
“Yes?” Miguel stands up again.
“I’d like a bean burrito, if you wouldn’t mind. Sour cream and heavy on the cheese.”
While Miguel’s busy fixing the order, I check Twitter. The first item in my feed is an update from the Washington Post.
BREAKING: North Korea releases footage of captured American soldiers.
I click through to the article.
North Korean television stations began their broadcast day on Monday by airing footage of US soldiers that it claims to have captured in the Demilitarized Zone. The footage shows six soldiers in US Army uniforms in an unadorned concrete room. The men appear in good health, and one soldier, identified as Lieutenant Brian Kilpatrick, spoke briefly to the camera to say that he and his men have been treated humanely and are unharmed.
The rest of the article is repeating stuff I already know, so I tap back to Twitter. Most of my feed is taken up by pics and vids of the protest. I’d walked around a bit earlier, but we’re parked on the opposite end of the Mall from the speakers’ platform, so I haven’t been able to hear any of the speeches. Even the loudspeakers sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher at this distance. I check out a clip of Natalie Portman warning that war with North Korea could mean the end of human civilization. That’s nice and all, hon, but where have you been until now? Weren’t you a Hillary supporter? She’s as much a warmonger as the Tangerine Menace. And if she were threatening war, I bet you wouldn’t be out here, now would you?
I’ve got no time for these wannabe Hollywood “progressives”. Only folk like Susan Sarandon and Oliver Stone have decent political views, and they’re treated like pariahs by the liberal set.
My phone chimes with an incoming text. It’s from Sass.
Getting off at the Smithsonian Metro now.
I hit reply and type out,
We’re parked on Constitution north of the Washington Monument.
A few seconds go by before Sass responds.
K. Be right there.
Miguel’s finishing up with the customer. Once he’s done, I tell him, “They’re on their way.”
“All right. I’ll close up, you get everything ready.” He opens the truck’s back door and steps outside. He lowers the shutter, plunging the interior into darkness.
I flip on the overhead light, then kneel by the cabinet where we have everything stowed. There are a dozen plastic bags, each one containing a pair of sweatpants, a sweatshirt and a ski mask, all black. We already have them sorted by size, and each one is labeled for its recipient. I wipe a few stray bits of cheese and lettuce off the counter and lay the bags out.
We also have baseball bats stowed down there, but only half a dozen. We don’t dare pass them out to everyone—there are going to be too many newbies with us today.
There’s clanging outside as Miguel lowers the truck’s awning and folds up the signs, then he climbs back in, shutting the door behind him.
“You nervous?” he says.
“Nothing I haven’t done before.” Unlike these Jennies-come-lately outside, I’ve been protesting against American fascism since before it was cool. Been arrested … seven times, I think it is now. And that’s nothing compared to Sass. She was around for Occupy DC. She told me back then she got arrested nearly every week. And people think American fascism is something that happened recently? Just because their lives were comfortable, they ignored what was really happening in this country.
Miguel’s like that. He only got involved with our group after the election. He’s not even coming with us today—he’s afraid if he gets arrested, the truck’ll get towed and he’ll be in trouble with his uncle. We had to twist his arm to even use it as a base.
“Well, good luck,” he says and goes up to the driver’s seat. He puts on NPR.
“…while the National Park Service won’t issue an official estimate, organizers say the protest has attracted a million people. Similar protests are taking place across the country. A march through Central Park in New York is pegged at five-hundred thousand people, and protests in San Francisco and Los Angeles are shaping up to be in the same range. So far the protests have been peaceful, apart from a small riot in New York where a group of so-called ‘Black Bloc’ protesters smashed the windows of stores in Times Square.”
Peaceful protests. They talk about that like it’s what we should be aspiring to. At a time like this! If the people on the Mall turned north and marched en masse on the White House, this whole crisis would be over within an hour. But the bourgie horde outside doesn’t want to do anything that requires real effort on their part—maybe even a sacrifice or two.
Somebody knocks on the back door.
This is it. This is the moment when we’re at the greatest risk of being stopped.
“Street looks clear,” Miguel says.
I open the door and find Sass waiting outside.
“C’mon.” I offer her a hand and pull her up, then help the next person and the next. We have to get everyone inside quickly. If a cop sees a bunch of people going into a food truck, they’re gonna get suspicious and come to investigate. We’d considered having everyone break into groups and do it two or three at a time, but in the end we’d decided there’d be less risk if everyone went in one go.
The interior of the truck is cramped to begin with thanks to all the equipment, with the central aisle being barely wide enough for two people to stand facing each other, but we manage to get everyone packed in and I shut the door. That leaves me facing the back of the truck, though. Turning around is a real trick, and I end up stepping on someone’s foot.
“Ouch,” the guy next to me says. Duncan. One of the college students who joined our group recently.
He’s got a stubbly beard and gelled hair, and when I’d first met him, I’d assumed he was a douchebro who was only coming out to meet women—we get a lot of that, but they usually lose interest after a couple meetings. They all come in thinking they’re going to be Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebellion, but they end up mansplaining and tone-policing, then somebody tells them to check their privilege and they fall apart. There’d been one guy who got mad and accused us of creating a hostile environment, but most simply stopped showing up. Duncan, though, he’s stuck around.
Which is nice.
Despite the douchebro vibe, he’s cute as hell. He’s got a lean and tight body, well muscled but not ripped. I know every girl in our group has their eye on him—half the guys, too—but so far no one’s bagged him that I know of.
“Sorry,” I tell him.
“S’allright.” Ooo, what a smile. And those eyes … sparkle! Mmm-mmm.
This isn’t the right time. Maybe if we make it through this afternoon without being arrested, maybe we’ll go out for drinks afterwards, or back to Sass’s place to celebrate and I can drool over him there, but for right now we need to focus on the action.
“Okay,” I say, “I’ve got the clothes laid out on the side. If someone will pass them out.”
Les grabs a bag from the counter and reads the tag. “Tessa?”
“Up here,” a girl at the front says.
Les passes the bag down, then takes another one. “Duncan?”
Les tosses the bag like a frisbee, but it goes off course and pegs me in the face.
“Pass them out, I said.”
“My bad. Shawna?”
Duncan pulls the sweatshirt from the bag and puts it on over his T-shirt, then he places the ski mask atop his head like a hat. The final part proves the most difficult. We don’t have enough room to bend down, so he has to drop the sweatpants on the ground and step into them, then lower himself into a crouch to pull them up.
“Lori,” Les says and reaches their arm towards me. I grab the bag and start dressing myself. Looks like mine’s the last one.
“Okay,” Sass says. “Now I know some of you, this is your first action. Relax and don’t worry. As long as you remember the plan, everything will be all right. If you get arrested, it’s no big deal. You’ll spend a night in jail and be out on bail in time for lunch tomorrow. Keep your mouth shut and don’t say anything except, ‘I want a lawyer.’ I’ve got some cards, they have a phone number on them. Call it, give the person on the other end your information and they’ll take care of everything.”
She passes a stack of business cards to Shawna, who takes one and gives the rest to Tessa.
Despite the speech, the newbies look nervous. That’s good. If any of them looked confident, I’d be worried they were five-o. The cops have tried to infiltrate our group in the past, but we’ve always caught them before they could do much damage. The only time they actually stopped an action was when we were planning to graffiti the President’s hotel, and they ended up dropping charges because they moved on us too early and didn’t have enough evidence.
But today’s not like anything we’ve done before. This isn’t going to be a simple disruptive protest. We’re going for the big time here. That’s why we’re bringing so many newbs along—we can afford to lose them, but they don’t know enough to bring the rest of us down. They don’t even know the full extent of our plan for today. They think this is going to be like the Inaugural protest a couple years back, just marching in the street, making a spectacle.
“Everyone have a card?” Sass asks.
“I still need one,” says a girl named Genevieve—or as she insists we pronounce it, Zhone-vee-ev. Everyone calls her Jean for short.
Someone passes the stack to her and she takes a card, hands the rest to Sass.
“Okay then, I think we’r—”
“Guys, be quiet,” Miguel calls from the front. He pulls the curtain between us and him closed. A second later we hear a knock on the window.
Nobody breathes. Nobody moves.
“Yes, officer,” Miguel says. Shit. Just what we do not need right now.
We can’t hear what the cop says, but after a moment Miguel says, “I ran outta propane. I wasn’ expecting how busy it’d be today.” Another pause, then Miguel says, “Ah, nah, nah, my uncle, he’s gon’ bring me another tank.”
A really long pause.
“Yeah. Shoul’n’ be too long. Half hour, say.”
The cops says something else.
Then total silence. Thirty seconds go by. A full minute.
The curtain whips open. Miguel leans back and smiles, gives us a thumbs up. “All clear.”
“Thank the Goddess in all her glory,” Les says.
“You sure he’s gone?” Sass says.
“Yeah, he headed towards the Monument. He’s lost in the crowd. Even if he looks back and sees you guys leaving, he won’t be able to react in time.”
“Everything else clear?”
Miguel checks all the mirrors and even sticks his head through the driver side window. “We good.”
“Then let’s do this!” Sass shouts.
We all cheer back, and I twist around to open the door.
We pour into the street, pulling down our ski masks as we jump out. Sass and Les have the bats, and they pass them out as we form into a troupe. Duncan heads straight into the street and holds up his hand to block traffic. We charge across the street.
Miguel had parked across from the south-east corner of the Ellipse. Some of the overflow from the protest has moved over there, mainly people who want to take a breather, but compared to the Mall it’s pretty sparse.
The actual Ellipse—the circular road that gives the park its name—has long been closed to traffic and turned into a parking area for White House personnel. And this is supposed to be the people’s property! We’re lucky they haven’t banned the public from the park entirely—they’ve already extended the “security area” around the White House into the north end. The road into the park is blocked off by giant flower planters full of marigolds that have withered in the extreme heat, but the sidewalk is open. We follow it down.
Sass is on the phone next to me. “Yeah, we’re moving now. Get ready.” She hangs up. “Olatunde and the others are in place. C’mon.” She sprints ahead, forcing the rest of us to pick up our pace to keep up.
Protesters are staring at us like we’re maniacs. I’m not surprised. Most of them probably voted for Hillary—sure, some of them might’ve supported Bernie in the primaries, but they went with her when it counted. They could’ve voted for Dr. Stein, but no, they actually believe that nonsense about choosing the lesser of two evils. They’re exactly the reason America’s in the state it is. If sheeple weren’t brainwashed into voting for morally compromised corporate shills, we could’ve had an honest election about values, and we wouldn’t be in this situation. But no, they had to go with the corrupt status quo—and then they blame those of us who didn’t for everything that’s going wrong. They refuse to see that both sides are fascist, it’s just one is more open about it.
We reach the end of the path and cross the road to the center of the park. There are people with blankets spread on the ground, their protest signs laid out beside them. Somebody has their phone hooked up to speakers, they’re pumping out beats, and in the distance I see a group playing frisbee. Are these people really here protesting?
But the good news is, I don’t see any cops or other security. Good. We want to get noticed, but not just yet. First we have to get to the north end of the park.
We turn and run, following the path along the road. Les takes a swipe at a black SUV, shattering a headlight. Duncan takes that as a cue, and he chops his bat down on a side-view mirror, snapping it clean off.
“All right!” Tessa shouts.
“C’mon,” I clap. “No war! No KKK! No fascist USA!”
The others take up the chant.
Now we’re attracting real attention. People are taking out their cell phones to film us. Good. Our actions gain power the more people can see them.
The first cop appears as we approach the fence line. He holds back, clearly afraid of us. That’s the great thing about wearing all black like this—it makes us look tougher than we are. Cops never want to tangle with us unless they have plenty of back up. He stops twenty yards away and speaks into the radio clipped to his epaulet.
While he’s distracted, those of us with bats approach a sports car—all red and shiny, must belong to somebody important—and begin wailing on it. Les smashes the windshield. Sass takes a couple swings at the rear window but doesn’t manage to do more than crack it, but Duncan dents the hood and front grille. I take out my Swiss Army knife and slash the front tire. In less than a minute, we’ve got the thing wrecked. Whoever owns this is gonna be sobbing when he leaves to go home—and the car’s such a penismobile, you know it’s gotta be a he. I’m hoping it’s Klausner, the President’s son-in-law.
By the time we’ve finished with the car, more cops are hurrying over, and a couple guys that must be Secret Service.
I notice one of our group—Shawna, I think, but it’s hard to tell when everyone has a mask on—standing away from the rest of us. That’s not good. She’s gonna be an easy mark when the cops come at us. We need her to give them a merry chase before they take her down.
I go over to get her, but she shies away from me.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“No, no, no, no. Nobody said nothing ‘bout none this.”
Yeah, it’s Shawna. She’s one of our newest members, and this is her first action. I thought she knew what our group was. I mean yeah, we hadn’t divulged the full extent of our plan for the day—just in case one of the newbies was a narc—but she must’ve known we were gonna be doing something like this. Otherwise we’d be out with the regular protesters, waving signs and chanting.
“C’mon, or you’re gonna get—”
“Stay where you are. You’re all under arrest,” a cop says. He hasn’t drawn a weapon, but his hands are on his pepper spray cannister and tazer.
“Go to hell, you fascist pig!” Les shouts.
“I’m warning you, it’s best if you submit peacefully.”
I count about five cops here now, and two Secret Service guys. That’s nowhere near enough. We’ve gotta draw more attention. “Let’s split up,” I say and make a run for the road, dragging Shawna with me.
“Wait!” the cop shouts.
When I get to the other side of the street, I smash the window on a minivan. My bat connects with the glass hard enough to leave a spiderweb of cracks, but the glass doesn’t shatter. The blow sends a shockwave up my arm, so harsh it feels like my shoulders are about to pop out of their sockets.
“Oh my God, we’re going to get arrested!” Shawna says.
“Yeah, probably. Didn’t we make that clear?”
“For like trespassing, or refusing to disperse. Nobody said anything about vandalism.”
“These vehicles belong to fascists. Why should you care?”
“You’re fucking crazy. I’m outta here.”
She breaks into a run, but she only gets a dozen yards before a cop tackles her. While he’s busy with her, I turn and run the other way.
Across the street, it’s total chaos. Black-clad figures are running every which way, trampling over people’s picnics and through frisbee matches. The cops are in pursuit, but they’re outnumbered. One of them takes down a girl—Tessa looks like, judging by her thick build—and cuffs her. But now that she’s a prisoner, he has to do something with her. That means withdrawing and leaving his comrades a man down.
But not for long. More cops are pouring into the park, and Secret Service, too. Sirens start to sound in the distance as reinforcements make their way towards the Ellipse.
I look towards the security perimeter in the north. There are three figures sprinting across the field beyond the fence. Yes! Olatunde and the others are through. We can pull back now.
I take out my phone and open a text message I’d prepared earlier. The message is nothing more than “go,” but I doubt anyone will read it. The sound of an incoming text will be the signal. I tap the SEND icon and a spinny circle appears for a couple seconds. With a million people around, the phone needs a moment to push the message through. Figure another couple seconds for it to bounce off the cell tower and back to the recipients. Sass and Les have similar messages ready on their phones, that way if one of us were arrested, incapacitated, or just plain too busy, there’d still be someone to send it.
I don’t wait to see if the message got through. I hightail it out of the park, cutting across the grass towards 15th Street. We need to get the cops outta here, away from Olatunde and his team. On my way I whip off my ski mask and toss it aside.
There’s a wooden fence around the edge of the park, but it’s a flimsy thing made of wooden slats, meant only to encourage people to enter the park through the designated entrances. In a number of spots, it’s been blown nearly flat. I head towards one of these and vault over it. I haven’t run track since eleventh grade, nearly a decade ago, but I make the jump no problem.
I hit the sidewalk and run towards the Mall, dodging past people who are starting to head home.
I pass a trashcan and toss my phone into it, making sure it sinks deep inside. It’s only a burner, and I’d paid cash for it, but there’s always the possibility the cops could trace it back to the store and get security camera footage. Even that won’t do them much good, though; I was wearing a baseball cap the whole time I was in the store, and I made sure to keep my head down so the cameras couldn’t get a good look at me. But you always want to send the pigs through as many hoops as you can.
The street is lined with charter busses and food trucks. I stop and hide between a couple so I can take my sweat suit off—it’s too conspicuous in this heat. A cop could spot me from a block away. I tear my sweatshirt off and toss it on top of a truck. I’m about to drop my pants when a man shouts at me from across the street. Even without looking over, I can tell he’s po-po. It’s the tone of his voice, that “I don’t take no shit from anyone” attitude that all cops have.
He steps into the street, raising his hand for traffic to stop, but a car blasts by him without even tapping its brakes. He jumps back.
While he’s distracted, I step back to the sidewalk and start running. I reach the corner, not far from where we’d entered the park, and sprint across Constitution.
Miguel’s food truck is still there—he’s got it open again and is serving a mid-sized family. Be a good place to hide, but with a cop on my tail, I don’t dare. I keep running, south onto the Mall.
“Hey! You! Stop!”
I don’t look behind me, but I can tell the cop’s closing in on me.
I plunge into the crowd, cutting in front of a group of Asian tourists who are gawking at the Washington Monument despite everything that’s going on around them. I elbow my way deeper, not paying attention to the nasty looks people are giving me. The cop keeps on shouting, but his voice is getting more and more distant.
I come to a stop in front of a huge TV. The thing is bigger than my living room floor! A crowd has gathered to watch Elizabeth Warren speaking in front of the Capitol. The people around me are eating up her speech. Don’t they realize she used to be a Republican? How can they trust her? Idiots. They’ll take whatever the Democrats shovel out, even if it’s conservative politics with the edges filed off. And they probably call themselves “progressives.”
I need to get my sweatpants off. Those are the one thing that could give me away. But I can’t very well strip here—it’d draw too much attention, even if I do have shorts on underneath. But where else can I do it? There are port-a-potties nearby, but the line is ridiculously long.
Maybe I should get on the Metro and head home. The nearest station isn’t too far off. By the time I get back to my place, anyone who’s been captured should be booked. I can call Weiner-Hartman-Ferrell and find out how many calls they’ve gotten so far.
“Hey.” A hand clamps down on my shoulder and I jump nearly outta my skin, but it’s just Duncan. He’s sweating and outta breath—he wipes his forehead on the sleeve of his—oh, shit, he’s still got his sweatshirt on. People are looking at him funny. Even if they don’t know what’s going on precisely, a guy wearing long sleeves in ninety-plus weather must be up to something, especially if he’s dressed in black.
“Let’s head outta here.” I tug his arm.
As we walk, he pulls the sweatshirt off, but he keeps it in his hand, which I suppose is an improvement.
“Did you see what happened to the others?” I ask.
“George and Shawna got arrested, I know that. Saw a couple others running out the park, but they had cops on their butts. No idea who they were. And, uh, Les and Sass—they were headed towards Pennsylvania Av last I saw.”
“Let’s head up there.”
We keep to the thickest part of the crowd for as long as we can, which takes us towards the Natural History Museum. I don’t wanna go near there. I’d called in sick this morning. The last thing I need is for someone to spot me out here. Brad likes me and cuts me a lot of slack, but there are limits. If he finds out I’m playing hooky, I’ll be in trouble.
And I’m right to be worried, cuz as we’re nearing 12th Street, I spot River moving down the sidewalk. I’ve never liked that guy. He’s always quiet, and you try to talk to him he just nods and mumbles, doesn’t say anything other than “yeah” or “no” no matter how much you say to him.
Duncan and I are almost to the edge of the crowd, but I turn back so River can’t see me even if he looks over.
“What is it, a cop?” Duncan says, following my lead.
“What? You take part in the capitalist economy? Didn’t think you were the type.”
“Food costs money, so does a roof. Even Marx had a job.”
River’s headed away from us now, so we resume our trek north. We move beyond the fringe of the crowd and onto 12th Street, keeping to the side of the road farthest from the museum.
We’re halfway to Constitution when I spot Jean up ahead. She’s managed to ditch her sweatsuit and looks like any other middle class, African-American woman out protesting—which, considering the crowd is overwhelmingly white, means she still sticks out.
“You guys seen anyone else?” she asks.
I shake my head and Duncan tells her what he told me.
“Yeah,” Jean says, “I saw George get arrested. Adriana tried to run for the entrance, but a squad car pulled up before she got there. I think a couple guys got out on the far side of the park.”
“So what do we do? Call it a day, go home, or try to meet up with Les?”
“The thing is, the cops are not reacting well,” Jean says.
“Whadaya mean?” Duncan says.
“I dunno what Olatunde did, but he pissed somebody off bigly. More than we expected. The cops are really out searching right now. Not just on foot, either.”
As if on cue, one of DC’s finest passes the end of the block, making a slow sweep of the street. We’re far enough back that the officer can’t see me and Duncan’s black sweatpants, but if the car turned down 12th, we’d be caught.
“Well, it’s not like Les’s never spent a night in jail before,” I say.
“I guess,” Jean says. She’s been on a couple actions with us, but never one where there’ve been arrests.
“Look,” Duncan says, “I vote we get the hell outta here. Isn’t there a Metro station up ahead?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Federal Triangle.” That’s the one I usually use when leaving work.
Jean doesn’t look convinced, but she nods. “Sure.”
We cross Constitution and enter a canyon of Federal buildings, all of them ugly, fascist-looking stone hulks.
And speaking of fascism, there’s a TV van parked on the street—WTTG, Fox5.
“Excuse me.” A blonde woman pokes her head through the window. She’s got so much hairspray on that her hair doesn’t budge when she tilts her head. “Are you guys protesters, by any chance?”
“Fuck you, Nazi Barbie,” Jean says, emphasizing her point with an upraised middle finger.
“No need to be nasty,” the woman replies.
“To you, yeah there is,” Duncan says.
We hurry past.
We’re almost to the station when a couple figures turn the far corner. From the waist up they’re wearing regular clothes, but they have on the familiar black sweatpants of our group. Les and Sass. They’re both running at full speed, and the reason why soon becomes apparent—they’ve got a cop car on their tails.
“Ah, no,” Jean says.
This is definitely not good, but we aren’t caught yet. “This way!” I wave for everyone to follow me.
The Federal building to our left curves back from the street, forming a semicircular plaza. There’s a colonnade around the first floor of the building, and in the middle of it is an open passage to the interior of the block. That’s where I head, vaulting over a heavy concrete flower planter—the sort that’s supposed to prevent a car bomb from getting close to the building, which means the cop car can’t get through either. They’ll have to get out and chase us on foot, or else circle the block. If we’re fast enough, we can break away.
The others follow me under the archway. Jean heads towards the escalators for the Metro, but I call her back. Federal Triangle is one of those stations that only has one exit, so if we go down there, we’ll be trapped. All the cops have to do is stop the trains while they search for us.
Instead I run straight through to the other side and into a second plaza—really a glorified alley between two sets of buildings. There are sculptures, and benches, and cafe-style seating, but ultimately it’s an alley with a wide area in the middle. Though part of that area’s been cut away, making a circular pit with a bunch of shops and restaurants at the bottom.
Maybe we should head down there, hide out.
No. At this time on a Sunday, the stores will be deserted, probably getting ready to close. If the cops check down there, we’ll never get away.
Our best hope is to head north. If the cops stay in their cars, they’ll have to go almost all the way around the block to catch up with us. We have a chance of beating them.
I break to the right. The walls close in until the passage is barely wide enough to accommodate a vehicle. The shadows are deep here, the buildings around us blotting out the sun, but even with the shade it’s oppressively hot. By the time we get to the end of the alley, I’m gasping for breath.
And then we come out onto the street, and it’s even worse. We can’t go on like this. If we keep running in this heat, we’ll keel over in no time. We have to find somewhere safe and air-conditioned to hide out.
There’s a possibility. I don’t like it. It’s going to mess my life up if we go there, but if the cops are as worked up as Jean says, we’re gonna have to.
“Come on,” I say. “I have an idea.”
There it is. The end of the block up ahead. The Natural History Museum. If we can get in there, we can hide.
The trick is, getting in there. We’ve been running for two blocks now. That doesn’t sound so far, but in this heat … ohhh. I’m gonna drop dead. This is too much. Global Warming.
But we need to run. Have to keep running. We’d snuck past the cops on 12th Street—looked like they were searching the station, thank the Goddess, with only a single officer up on the street—but we can’t let our guard down. There are other prowl cars around. We’ve caught sight of them in the distance, still searching for us.
Our luck only needs to hold out until we reach the museum. Maybe fifty feet. We can do this!
But it can’t be that simple. Of course it can’t.
We’re almost to the corner when a cop car passes ahead of us. It’s a T-intersection with no stop signs for the cross-street, but the car’s rolling along at a crawl. The pig behind the wheel looks over at us. We’re in the shade of a tree, but otherwise he has a clear view.
He flips his siren on and stomps the gas, turning across the intersection towards us. The sun flashes across his windshield, nearly blinding me, but for a second I have a clear view of him with a mic to his mouth. I can’t hear what he’s saying and I can’t see his lips moving, but I can guess exactly what he’s saying.
“Book it!” Sass shouts.
We run into the road, barely even checking for traffic. A car whizzes behind me, the driver laying on his horn. Another squeals its brakes as it comes to a halt with its nose in the intersection. We hit the sidewalk and sprint for the museum doors. I yank them open and usher everyone inside. The guard inside looks up in surprise, but relaxes when he sees me.
“Hey, Lori, awfully late to be comin’ in.”
“Yeah, busy day.”
I cast a glance back at the street. The cop’s gone up to the end of the block and is making an illegal U-turn, his siren still screaming. Like a wolf’s call, it’s answered by more in the distance. We don’t have much time.
I step inside, and I’m bathed in air so cool I feel like I’ve been transported to the arctic. Ten seconds ago I was burning up, and now I’m shivering.
We’ve come in through the museum’s rear entrance. Because the building’s built into a slope, we’re on a different floor from the main lobby, and there are no exhibits down here, only the cafeteria and gift stores. The hall’s virtually deserted, and the cafe only has one family eating inside.
“Where is everyone?” Duncan says.
“Protest scared ‘em away. It’s been dead all day, other than the movie upstairs.”
But that’s okay. I wasn’t planning on hiding in a crowd.
“Why don’t you stay back and keep an eye out,” Sass suggests to Jean.
“Yeah, okay.” She nods.
I head towards the souvenir shop. It isn’t particularly busy either, just a middle aged man poking around the puzzle section. I approach the counter. Amy and Brad are the only employees I can see, and they’re both hunched over a cell phone, watching a video.
“Ah, man.” Brad laughs. He’s a little older than me—he’s never mentioned his age, but when we talk about our childhoods he’ll occasionally drop a reference to fads and cartoons that were before my time. He’s pretty chill for a manager, at least when it comes to female employees, but even so I’m pushing my luck by showing up after calling out sick.
But too late for that now.
Amy taps the screen and slides her finger to the side. “This is never gonna get old.” She’s much younger, a twiggy college student, super bourgeois. Her parents are covering all her tuition and living costs. The only reason she has a job is so she’ll have money to go clubbing once the new semester starts.
Brad is leaning over her as they watch the video, his nose so close to her hair he must be able to tell what kind of shampoo she uses. He doesn’t see me until I’m in front of the counter.
He looks up with a start. “Lori. What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were sick.”
“No,” I admit. “I went to the protest.”
“Oh. Don’t let River find out. I hadda call him in, and he was not happy.”
“How can you tell?” Amy says. “The guy’s like a robot. ‘May I help you?’ ‘Is that all for you?’ ‘Have a wonderful day.’”
“I’m sorry, but this is important and we don’t have a lot of time,” I say.
“What? Did you forget your paycheck?” Brad reaches under the counter for the binder where we keep the checks.
“No. No, we’re in trouble and we need help.”
“Call for back-up.”
“Intruder on the South Lawn. Go to lockdown.”
I look down at Amy’s cell phone. The video is jumbled for a moment, just flashes of green and black and blue, but after a moment the camera operator gets everything under control and steps back, revealing a pile of men in black suits on top of a large, squirming African-American man.
“Ah, some guy broke onto the White House grounds, jumped Bast Kroga in the middle of an interview. Just ran up and—bam!—right in the nose. It’s like five kinds of awesome.”
We don’t have much time, but … “Can I see that?”
Without waiting for an answer, I grab the phone and rewind the video. There’s Kroga talking on Fox News. There’s some noise off camera, someone shouts, and then—yes! Olatunde barrels onto the screen and plows his fist into Kroga’s face. This wasn’t exactly what we’d had planned—our goal was for Olatunde to make it into the press room and deliver a statement denouncing US military aggression—but this will probably bring more attention to us.
Though at the same time, it means extra trouble for us. We do something this eye catching, the government’s going to come down hard on us, just like they did after the inaugural protests. No wonder the cops are running a dragnet. They’re sure to come up with some bullshit federal charge against us.
If they catch us, that is.
I hold up the phone. “This was us.”
“What was you?” Amy says.
“This. We’re with DI45. You know, the group that protested the inaugural?”
“You mean the rioters?” she says.
Of course. She’s one of those people. The first time we’d worked together, politics had come up and she’d turned out to be a total Hillary-bot, blaming Bernie for Hillary’s loss and refusing to recognize that the Democrats nominated a lousy candidate. She’s the sort of person who thinks she’s a left-wing progressive, but she spouts neo-liberal talking points.
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s us. And we were doing it again, just now. And now the cops are after us. We need to hide.”
As if on cue, Jean runs into the store. “They’re here.”
“And you want us to help?”
“C’mon, Brad, you’re our only hope.”
He thinks for a moment, then turns to Amy. “Can you hold down the register by yourself?”
She looks around the empty store, shrugs. “Yeah, sure.”
“And pretend you don’t know anything, the cops come in,” Sass says.
“Fine.” Amy’s less than enthused, but I get the feeling she’ll keep her word.
I hope she’ll keep her word.
“Okay, c’mon.” Brad steps from behind the counter and leads us to the back of the store. He stops at a door and punches a number on a keypad. An electronic chime whoops twice and he opens it.
We step through to a dimly lit corridor with doors along one side—the break room, an employee restroom, and a small storeroom. At the end of the hall there’s a pair of heavy-duty metal doors with an exit sign above them, but a huge red and white sticker warns, “ALARM WILL SOUND IF DOORS ARE OPENED.” Beyond this is the loading dock, but only Brad and Keisha have the keys to get through without triggering the fire alarm. This is the main reason I grabbed Brad instead of using my own passcode to get back here. Well, that and if Brad had seen us going back without knowing what was up, he might’ve called the cops himself.
Once we’re all in the hallway and the door’s closed, me and the others take the opportunity to take off our sweatpants. We stuff them into a trashcan in the break room. Duncan and Les rearrange the garbage so the pants aren’t visible at first glance.
“Can you let us through?” I nod towards the loading dock door.
“We need to get outta here. That’s the fastest way.”
“I’m only supposed to open that door if we’re getting a truck.” The loading dock is also used by the museum people when they’re getting new specimens, so it has access to the parts of the building that are off limits to the public—the labs you see on Bones, I suppose. I’ve never been able to get back there myself.
“Look, you’ve already let us in here,” I say. “If the cops want to search the whole store and they find us, you’ll be in trouble too.”
I’ve got him and he knows it. “Yeah, okay.” He takes his keychain off his belt loop and flips through to find the one he needs. He twists the key in the lock until something beeps, then pushes through.
The loading dock is dark and deserted—unsurprising for a Sunday afternoon—and the metal shutters over the loading bay are locked, but Brad has a key to these as well. With nobody around, we can get outside, no problem.
But before Brad can get the dock opened, his phone rings.
“Don’t answer,” I tell him, but he does anyway.
“Yello? … Yeah … Yeah, I understand … Yeah, let them through.” He hangs up. “That was Amy. Cops wanna check the backroom.”
Dammit. That was faster than I expected. I figured they’d search all the public areas before they wanted backstage. But at least Amy can only let them into the break room. Without Brad, they can’t get into this part of the building unless they get the museum’s administration to let them in.
I’m about to urge Brad to open the loading dock and let us out when I’m startled by a loud, creaking noise from the other side of the bay. For a moment I think it’s the cops, that somehow they’ve managed to outflank us, but it turns out to be a couple of women and a guy coming out of a dark stairwell that’s marked OFF LIMITS. I recognize the women as museum employees—the actual museum, not the gift shop or cafeteria. I’ve seen them around before, but we’ve never talked—they never talk to the peons. The guy is a stranger to me, but the way he’s got his arm around one of the women, he must be a boyfriend or husband.
“—so much shorter than I expected,” one of the women is saying.
“And his voice sounds deeper on TV,” the other one—the one accompanied by the guy—says.
For his part, the man says, “I’m just surprised he didn’t like the new Star Trek. I thought it was awesome.”
They disappear around a corner, towards the door that leads to the museum’s back area, without ever glancing in our direction. I hear a beep and the door opens. Their voices disappear through to the other side.
But the other door, the one they’d come through, is hanging open. It’s on one of those pneumatic arms that’s supposed to pull it closed, but it’s stuck half way.
“What’s down there?” Les says.
“Tunnels,” Brad says. “They connect all the museums.”
“All the museums?” Duncan says.
“That’s what I heard. I’ve never been down there myself—it’s off limits.”
“There’s a museum on the far side of the Mall, right?” Duncan says.
“The Castle,” I say.
“Then if we can get to it underground …” Duncan says.
He’s right. If we go out through the loading bay, there’s still a chance the cops will spot us, but not if we go underground. And the Castle is right next to the Smithsonian Metro. “Yeah, let’s go.”
“I’m not sure that’s a wise idea,” Brad says.
“You don’t have to come,” Les says.
“I can’t get back to the store while the cops are snooping around the back.”
“Sounds like a personal problem,” Les says.
We head for the door. Brad hesitates for a couple seconds then comes after us.
We descend a badly lit stairwell, looks like it hasn’t been renovated in decades—if ever. There’s dust on the hand rails, and cobwebs on the ceiling.
“This isn’t used much anymore,” Brad says. “Somebody told me it’s from the olden days, they needed to pump steam from the Castle to the subsidiary museums because they didn’t have boilers of their own.”
“So why were those people down here?” Sass says.
“Haven’t a clue.”
We reach the bottom. It looks like a huge broom closet, with tools and cleaning equipment stacked against the wall. And there are indeed pipes running along the ceiling, so low that Les and Duncan have to duck their heads.
There’s only one way we can go from here—down the tunnel. It’s no better lit than the stairwell, but it is lit … which is weird. Why waste the electricity? Did the museum employees forget to hit a switch when they came up? You’d think people into science would care more for the environment.
We’ve gone some distance—it’s hard to judge down here, but I think we’ve gone far enough to be under the Mall—when Les stops short. Since he’s in the lead, the rest of us end up piling into each other.
“Listen,” he says.
I don’t hear any—no … there are people talking in the distance. Someone laughs, real loud.
“Oh shit,” Brad says.
“What?” Sass says.
It takes me a moment for me to figure out what he’s talking about, but then it hits me—the museum’s IMAX theater has been showing the new Liam LaGrange Bassett documentary all weekend, with a special Q&A session afterwards with the doctor himself.
“The last showing got out an hour ago,” Brad says. “They’re probably giving him the behind-the-scenes tour now.”
That would mean those are the museum bigwigs up ahead. Those folks earlier, they’d been down here hobnobbing. And unless we can find a branch tunnel to one of the other museum’s, we’re going to run right into them.
Either that or we have to turn around and go back—but even then, we might not get out of the loading dock before these guys catch up with us. Damn.
“We can get past them, I bet,” Duncan says.
“It’s possible,” Les says.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is way more than I bargained for,” Brad says.
“You chose to come,” Sass says.
She’s right. I like Brad. He’s a decent guy, not too exploitative for a capitalist lackey. But you’ve gotta prioritize what’s important. Watching a YouTube video’s not going to topple this fascist regime. Only those of us out here fighting for what’s right can do that. And to do that, we need to get away. We’ll do no good in a cell.
“Go back if you’re afraid,” I tell Brad.
“Yeah. I think I will.” He turns and heads away.
“Okay, so do we just rush at these guys?” Duncan says.
“The only way out is through,” Sass says.
“If we run at ‘em and yell, I bet they’ll step aside and be too confused to do anything,” Les says.
So that’s the plan. “On three,” I say. “One. Two. Three.”
I take off running and so does Les, but the others wait a second before they follow. Come on, guys. I said “on three.” On. You know what that means?
Well, too late to do anything now. The museum employees are dead ahead, their backs to us.
“Yooooooooooooooooo!” Les screams.
They jump at the noise and most of them step aside, but one man just turns and stares at us in bewilderment. He’s heavy, too, and takes up a large portion of the tunnel. There’s no way around him. Les tries, but he trips and goes flying face first onto the floor. I stop short.
One man adjusts his glasses in a way that says he’s in charge. “Who are you people? How did you get down here?”
But before I can respond, the tunnel rumbles. For a moment I think we must be under the street and a large truck is passing over us, but the shaking is too intense, and goes on too long.
“Earthquake,” a man says from the back of the crowd. I recognize him from television. Liam LaGrange Bassett. “I don’t suppose this was designed to withst—”
He doesn’t finish the sentence. The ceiling chooses that moment to crack open and pour a ton of dirt down onto us.
To Be Continued...